You’re a lost toy?

--Woody and Bo Peep, ‘Toy Story 4’

 

Chapter 292 – Friends of the Huangs

 

“I win,” Huang Ming smirked as he tossed his final card onto the pile.

 

There was a collective groan from all around the table.

 

“What are you smiling at?” Liu Xiang growled, annoyed by the self-satisfied grin on Huang Ming’s face.

 

Huang Ming spread his arms so as to encompass the table. “Smiling at the fact that I am with a very distinguished and elite group.”

 

Sitting with him were the most distinguished young men of the day; the cream of the crop, the future of the Chuwu Kingdom. They were:-

 

Huang Ke the Mountain Splitter, his second brother, famed military commander of Tigertrap Fort,

Cao Shuang the Ten Splayed Fingers, business magnate and tycoon,

Liu Xiang the Iron Tiger, commandant of Tianxin City,

Ma Jun the Wine-Barrel, who used his wine-making background to be a chemist,

Zhang Ping the Stone General, a masonry expert now laying the infrastructure groundwork,

Lei Yan the Dancing Abacus, a wizard in mathematics and in charge of logistics,

And He Ding the Odd Brush, calligrapher, artist and orator to the masses.

 

Years from now, historians would remark on the extraordinary fact that all of them hailed from the same city of Tianxin. They would be unaware that these men were the closest helpers of this world that Huang Ming had influenced and nudged to help him develop the kingdom.

 

Despite his experiences, Huang Ming was not an expert in everything. He would describe himself someone with broad but superficial knowledge of most things. Yes, there are stories of travelers who can immediately engineer and jerry-rig inventions based on previous knowledge, but this was not the case of him in this setting. He was not going to write down an entire encyclopedia of his collected knowledge and then pass them on as sacred texts. It was better for the natives of the world to come up with the conclusions themselves.

 

Thus he relied on others more than usual. He provided them with the impetus and momentum, but it would be up to them to derive and formulate the solutions. He wrote broadly and allowed them to fill in the details themselves, correcting and adjusting their direction as and when needed. It was not always ideal, but it worked well enough. And they all rose together with him accordingly, each man now an important and vital cog of the country.

 

It was rare for all these talents to be gathered in one place, but they scheduled some time off in conjunction with Huang Ming’s return.

 

There were two missing: Nangong Xie who had turned traitor, and Min Guang, the youngest whose family had uprooted and disappeared entirely.

 

“Alright, spill. What are you up to this time?” Cao Shuang demanded. Together with Liu Xiang and Huang Ke, they were a little senior to the rest but had been co-opted into the group as time passed.

 

“Yes, you have been relatively quiet for the past two years. What are you up to?” Lei Yan chimed in.

 

“Quiet? That’s because we’re in the kingdom-building arc,” Huang Ming smirked.

 

He Ding’s brow furrowed as he mentally jotted it down. “What the hell do you mean? Is it another one of your strange phrases?”

 

But Huang Ming only chuckled. “I am just thinking that we have made a lot of progress in those two years.”

 

Thanks to Ma Jun, the budding seeds of the scientific method were beginning to grow. Zhang Ping had built the road systems and construction templates that accelerated the growth of towns and cities. Lei Yan organized the labour and the land allocations so that the people were working and fed, while He Ding built schools and a printing press to keep everyone educated and informed. Liu Xiang and Huang Ke commanded and trained the troops, while the wealth of the kingdom that funded it all was managed by Cao Shuang.

 

Really, it was relatively easy for Huang Ming. It was better than trying to do everything himself as in the past.

 

“Are you going to be a father?” Ma Jun asked curiously.

 

Ah, the same accursed question.

 

“Can’t I see my friends now that I have returned?” Huang Ming replied peevishly.

 

“We see each other often enough, just not all together,” Cao Shuang pointed out.

 

“I am,” Zhang Ping said suddenly.

 

They all turned to stare at the big man.

 

“You are what?” Lei Yan asked.

 

“I am going to be a father,” Zhang Ping stated.

 

“You mean Zhao Hongqi is pregnant?” Huang Ming tilted his head quizzically as he conjured up the image of the small and spirited wahaha girl.

 

Looking at the faces around him, he knew he wasn’t the only one doubtful. The size difference between Zhang Ping and Zhao Hongqi was quite considerable. If he had not known about the couple, Huang Ming would have called the authorities on his friend for violating a loli.

 

“But… how?” Lei Yan blurted thoughtlessly.

 

Huang Ke grinned. “Well, when a man and a woman get together…” he began.

 

“I know that,” Lei Yan interrupted in annoyance. Then he shook his head to end that train of thought and instead saluted Zhang Ping to congratulate him.

 

“Congratulations,” the others chorused.

 

Zhang Ping merely nodded in acknowledgement. They were accustomed to his reticence. He worked with stone, and behaved like one too.

 

“She will be staying in Tianxin City for the time being,” Zhang Ping said.

 

Ma Jun’s ears twitched at his words. “Only her? What about you?”

 

“I am busy,” Zhang Ping said as his eyes flicked towards Huang Ke. It was a subtle glance, but it was accusatory.

 

“He’s building our line of defenses,” Huang Ke answered their unasked query. “You will be away for a few months at most. Trust me; you will need that time away from your wife.”

 

“Oh? What do you mean by that?” Liu Xiang demanded, for his sister Liu Yuchun was Huang Ke’s wife.

 

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Huang Ming came to his brother’s rescue.

 

“Yes,” Huang Ke quickly agreed. “Think of the gifts and souvenirs you will be bringing back for her while you are traveling.”

 

“Why do we need another defense line?” He Ding wondered aloud. “The only threat remaining is from Jin, and they can only breach through Beihai and Tigertrap Fort. They have already tried and failed.”

 

“What if I tell you it is possible to shatter their walls from a great distance?” Huang Ke sighed. It was his turn to stare accusingly, this time directing it at Ma Jun.

 

“You’re also able to shoot back,” the portly man said defensively. “I only made the fire powder, it is all his idea in the first place,” he pointed at Huang Ming.

 

Liu Xiang sat straighter as he glared at the Huang brothers. “I heard you even gave my sister one of those rifles. How could you allow that to happen?”

 

“Don’t worry, I’ll get you one too,” Huang Ming said facetiously, seeing through his fake outrage. There was something about guns that was desirable to military men, and Liu Xiang was not an exception.

 

“See that you do,” the officer said, mollified.

 

“Are the Jins up to something to warrant the need for a new defence line?” Cao Shuang asked. “Perhaps it would better if we go on the offensive instead. We should take the initiative, instead of waiting for them to take action.”

 

“I heard that there is still resistance in Wei,” He Ding said. “Could we not incite their population to rise up? We could march in there as liberators.”

 

“Liberators? When we were the ones that weakened Wei so much that Jin waltzed in and conquered their kingdom?” Liu Xiang recounted.

 

“It is possible,” He Ding insisted. “The Jins are so different that the Wei people might prefer us over them.”

 

“Where is this coming from?” Huang Ming frowned. “Do you know something?”

 

“I…” He Ding faltered as their attention focused on him. His hands clenched within his sleeves as he gathered his resolve.

 

“I have been in contact with them.”

 

“What? When? How? Why?” they demanded.

 

His friends stared at him incredulously. Huang Ke and Liu Xiang, military officers who would be at the frontline at any conflict with the Jins, were particularly grim.

 

“You better explain yourself,” they warned.

 

He Ding rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Please don’t indirectly imply I’m stupid.”

 

Huang Ming smirked. “But if I directly call you stupid, can you take it?”

 

Despite the situation, the group shared a chuckle and the atmosphere lightened slightly.

 

He Ding then retrieved an envelope from his sleeve and slid it across the table towards Huang Ming.

 

“It’s from Min Guang,” he said, much to the shock of those in attendance.

 

“Well, that’s unexpected,” Huang Ming blinked.

 

The scholar exhaled heavily. “There is one more thing.”

 

“What else?”

 

“Ran Wei is still alive.”

 

 

Everything seemed better,

Until he got the letter.